Give Students Your Numbers

“We can use numbers to better understand literature” (from Tom Liam Lynch, “Shakespeare’s Spreadsheets“).

That’s so strangely and abstractly eloquent. For literature, numbers seem to be an inaccessibly distant and objective mode of information, but even they can be used in such a way as to bolster comprehension, critical thinking, and meaning-making.

This is computational analysis. The link above explains how it can be used to analyze themes from, for example, Hamlet, like by digitally counting and tracking the words related to death or the mind or oppression. I got a chance to engage in computational analysis with Dr. Lynch around Christina Hammonds Reed’s novel, The Black Kids. Some other preservice teachers and I looked at the significance of ‘hair’ in The Black Kids, like its role in discrimination and cultural pride. Just like Lynch describes, it was a way to zoom out from the text and look at it as a whole, how single words affect its every scene. This was an entirely new perspective. As a human-minded human, I do what comes naturally. I tend to analyze a scene and then connect it to other scenes, if needed, or start with a theme and look for scenes that fit it. Starting with an even more basic unit of literature–a word–was exciting. That’s not something that’s feasible with a physical text and the naked eye.

But, is that student-centered? The textual analysis I used to glean information about Reed’s writings on hair was just an objective Excel spreadsheet–not prior knowledge or lived experience or cultural background. Specifically in student-centered learning, I’ve been digging more into reader response theory–how students use their own prior knowledge to interpret a text and how best to facilitate that active learning. There’s an article in the Texas Journal of Literacy Education that had an interesting quote I’d like to build from: “At the secondary stage of development, students have already established their opinions about reading: either they love reading, or they do not. Reader response not only refreshes teachers’ reading instruction but renews students’ interest in reading because the emphasis is balanced between the reader and the text and not solely focused on the text (page 108, “Reader Response in Secondary Settings: Increasing Comprehension through Meaningful Interactions with Literary Texts,” by Amanda H. Woodruff and Robert A. Griffin, 2017).

There’s no doubt that numbers are often handled differently than literature. To use the language of reader response theory, math is almost universally efferent learning and literature has much more room for aesthetic learning. These different subjects and learning styles draw students of different interests, but regardless, literacy is valuable. That’s why literature teachers try out the methods of reader response theory: to appeal to a variety of students. So, this is where computational analysis can shine in reader response theory: as an option for students. Mathematically inclined students may find the subjective world of literature to be less accessible, but literature teachers can mitigate this by encouraging analysis of all kinds in text comprehension, especially numerical analysis for students who prefer only the most concrete and foolproof terms of justification. I certainly profitted from computing every instance of ‘hair,’ ‘braid, ‘curly,’ and ‘straight’ in The Black Kids, and I see no reason why children should be barred from the same learning only because of the efferent/aesthetic binary. It’s an elegant way to incorporate all of literary comprehension, digital literacies, and interdisciplinary learning.

I’m now reading The Poet X, by Elizabeth Acevedo, and considering its verse form, I would adore using computational analysis for that book. Poems tend to much more sparing with words; the lexical terms that are repeated are undoubtedly significant. Though I’m not too far into the novel yet, I would dig into Xiomara’s own spirituality with computational analysis: not necessarily her tension with traditional Christianity but any language that suggests her own persisting beliefs on morality, love, and personal and societal values. Of course without a CPU installed into my brain and an electronic copy, I’ll be doing that in the traditional human ways. But, soon enough, who knows? Maybe such unconventional analysis will be far more accessible.

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